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Greenberg (A Movie Review)

Updated: Jun 25, 2023




Starring Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Brie Larson, Juno Temple, Chris Messina, Susan Traylor, Merritt Wever, Zach Chassler, Mina Badie, Blair Tefkin, Mark Duplass, Jake Paltrow, Charlotte Vida Silverman, Luke Clements, Layla Delridge, Dave Franco, Max Hoffman, Ramona Gonzalez and Alessandra Balazs.

Screenplay by Noah Baumbach and Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Directed by Noah Baumbach.

Distributed by Focus Features.  107 minutes.  Rated R.

We have a tendency to forget that Ben Stiller actually has the skills to be a very commanding actor, just because he has spent so much time in recent years squandering his talents in trite crap like Night at the Museum, Meet the Parents, Tropic Thunder, Along Came Polly, Starsky & Hutch and all too many others.

Well, finally, Stiller gets a role in a film that he can actually sink his teeth into.  Greenberg is the best movie he has done in years and his excitement to be a part of such quality work is infectious.

That isn’t to say that Greenberg is a simple film.  When you get down to it, in many ways his character is quite unlikeable.  However, the realism and depth of the character brought to life by Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) and his wife/co-writer/supporting actress Jennifer Jason Leigh still make Greenberg a fascinating study of a potentially polarizing character.

Roger Greenberg is one of those guys that if you met him in real life, you’d probably not want to spend much time with him.  He is needy, self-obsessed, a know-it-all, sometimes nasty, certainly thoughtless and pretty much living in the past.  Still, his life – as seen though the prism of Baumbach and Leigh’s quirky screenplay – turns out to be often fascinating.

Roger has been living in New York for a couple of decades.  He originally moved there to become a musician, but that dream died long ago.  Now that he is about 40, he occasionally works as a carpenter, but mostly he is just surviving – trying his best to go through life without any drive or direction.

He returns home to Los Angeles to crash in his rich brother’s house when the sib is taking his family out of the country on vacation.  Years out of the LA scene has made Greenberg an alien to his old haunts – so out of place that he doesn’t drive in that sprawling metropolis and so self-absorbed that he simply expects everyone around him to drop all to take him around where he needs to go.

Mostly he leans on two people.  One is his long-time best friend and former band mate Ivan (Rhys Ifans) – though a friend he hasn’t seen in years.  Years ago Greenberg screwed Ivan and the other band members over and ruined what turned out to be their only chance at a recording contract.  Now Greenberg is staggeringly disinterested and callow about the friend’s distress over his marital separation.  Still, the two have a deep bond and Ivan can’t help but love the guy – even when Greenberg is being a total ass.

Even more important to Greenberg’s personal growth (well, sorta growth…) is Florence – played in a star-making performance by the luminous and essentially unknown Greta Gerwig.  Florence is the twenty-something assistant to Greenberg’s brother and ends up involved in a truly dysfunctional affair with the miserable older guy.  It is stunning what Gerwig does with the role – though she is attractive, Gerwig plays Florence as so timid and unsure in her own skin that the audience can’t help but love her.  The character eventually takes control of all audience attention.  It is truly impossible to have her in a scene in this film and not be riveted.

Playing against this fine actress really raises Stiller’s game as well.  He makes Roger likable even though what he does rarely deserves such affection.  Certain scenes crackle with tension and humor, for example when he blissfully reunites with his “one who got away” (played by Leigh) and does not recognize that she has long ago moved on while he is still stuck in the 80s.

Greenberg is not a movie for everyone.  Nothing huge happens, the characters often do unlikable things and there are almost no action sequences at all.  However, it is much more intriguing than most of the “traditional” films released this year.  I just hope that the early-year release does not make this film get overlooked in award season – Baumbach, Stiller and particularly Gerwig are totally deserving of some notice, perhaps even an Oscar nomination or two.

Greenberg has the old-fashioned appeal of a great forgotten 70s character study and it will stay with you long after more cookie-cutter dramatic stuff like Dear John or Remember Me has subsided from your memory.  Real life is being lived here, not Hollywood life.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2010 All rights reserved. Posted: March 21, 2010.


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